Sunday, May 29, 2011

Interesting book!

Also at the AVP national conference, the keynote speaker was Laura Magnani of the American Friends Service Committee. Magnani is the coauthor of a book titled, "Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System," written with Harmon L. Wray. The book critiques the current prison system, traces the history of the penal system, offers strong ethical and moral assessments of it, and lays out a new paradigm of criminal justice based on restorative justice and reconciliation. The authors put forward a 12-point plan for change and invoke our responsibilities as citizens and as a nation to provide remediation rather than mere retributive incarceration, answerable to the common good and the justice of God. Speaking purely for myself, and with apologuies to my agnostic or athiest friends, I am increasingly finding a spiritual imperative in our prison work, so was delighted to encounter this book. (Also, I think such work can help those of us on the left to dialogue productively with our possible allies on the right who are also active in prison work...)

The Poetic Justice Project

I'm at the annual national conference of the Alternatives to Violence Project in San Francisco. AVP is a wonderful volunteer organization that offers workshops in nonviolence in prisons and communities around the US and 50 nations. Tonight's entertainment was a terrific performance of "Off the Hook," a play about prison violence presented by actors of the Poetic Justice Project, a collaboration of formerly incarcerated writers, artists, musicians and actors. Tonight's play was written by Deborah Tobola with music by Shawn Collins. It was fantastic! Though many AVP members have been volunteering in prisons for years, it was still a revelation. But even better, in my opinion, is the fact that Poetic Justice performs in high schools and community settings and they are raising consciousness everywhere they go. Check them out!

Monday, May 23, 2011

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Three-Judge Ruling on California Prisons

In 2009, a federal three-judge panel ordered California to dramatically reduce its prison population, citing that the nation's most expensive and overcrowded system had swelled to constitutionally dubious proportions. Unsurprisingly, the Golden State's government challenged the ruling all the way to the nation's highest court. Today, the justices, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld the ruling.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Craig Haney on Prison Reform

Craig Haney, who conducted the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, co-authored this article arguing for local control of prisons in California.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New Book on Central Park Jogger Case

In 1989, five young men of color were tried and convicted of the brutal rape of a young white investment banker. The case sparked a profound wave of racialized hysteria, including full-page newspaper advertisements--financed by none other than Donald Trump--calling for the execution of the five suspects. In 2002, after another man confessed to acting alone in the attack, the state vacated the original convictions. This new book, written by Sarah Burns, details how the "same racist language that had been used to justify lynchings earlier in the century" helped create a climate of fear and irrationality around this case.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This Week in Civil Liberties

Two troubling reports on the civil liberties front this week...

First, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, just ruled that police may forcefully enter a residence without a warrant based on "exigent circumstances" such as the smell of marijuana or the probably sound of folks destroying evidence. The Kentucky Supreme Court had earlier decided in favor of the defendants, arguing that the police created the exigent circumstance when they knocked on the door. Justice Ginsburg was the lone dissent.

At the state level, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that citizens have no constitutional right to resist unlawful (i.e. warrantless) entries by law enforcement. Critics argue that the 3-2 decision undermines a legal principle as old as the Magna Carta.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Demise of Habeas Corpus?

This article, written by three Cornell law professors, just appeared in the National Law Review. It reviews the disastrous consequences of the Clinton-era Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and warns against recent budget-driven arguments in favor of further curtailing habeas rights.

In the news...

The struggle against the prison-industrial complex is often fraught with ambivalent avenues toward social change. Two recent articles speak to such tensions:

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (check out Megan Bernard's recent review on this blog), offers this powerful and challenging editorial on what she calls the "human rights nightmare" of mass incarceration. She argues that recent pushes toward reform, while encouraging in some ways, are also problematic because "the changing tide is best explained by perceived white interests." Drawing on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s iconic "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Alexander insists that such pragmatic paths toward reform too often come at the expense of broader, more principled movements for social change.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the State Senate has approved a bill that gives the Texas Forensic Science Commission broader investigative powers. This commission has carried special importance in recent years following several credible studies claiming that the conviction and 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for murdering his three children was founded on junk forensic science. Critics of this new legislation fear that it will allow Governor Rick Perry to block public scrutiny into this and other cases. While the bill grants greater powers to the commission, it also gives Perry complete control over appointments and closes public access to open investigations. In light of claims that the Governor has made many attempts to undermine inquiries that might exonerate Willingham, who was executed on Perry's watch, there is strong reason to believe that this silver lining contains a very dark cloud.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Former San Quentin Warden Turned Death Penalty Abolitionist

Check out this fascinating and informative Los Angeles Times profile of Jeanne Woodford. She presided over four executions in her capacity as San Quentin's warden, but will now direct Death Penalty Focus, a California-based abolitionist organization.

While the appeal of someone like Woodford joining the anti-death penalty cause is obvious, it also raises some important questions. Last year, several prominent abolitionists signed an open letter to the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, encouraging the organization to mute its vocal support for Pennsylvania death row inmate and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. Their rational? Supporting Abu Jamal jeopardized their attempts to cultivate relationships with conservative, mostly pro-death penalty organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police. Because Abu-Jamal was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, a crime which many individuals believe he did not commit, the FOP has been outspoken for three decades in their desire to see Abu-Jamal put to death. By abandoning Abu-Jamal, these abolitionists wager, they stand a better chance of turning these organizations away from endorsing capital punishment on pragmatic grounds like cost, innocence, etc.

Thus, the courting of law enforcement by the anti-death penalty movement may represent a double-edged sword. On one hand, such counterintuitive support from a community with generally high public credibility is certainly appealing. However, at what cost to our movement's principles do we seek such alliances?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New Yorker article on death penalty mediator

In the May 9, 2011 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Jefrrey Toobin discusses the work of Danalynn Recer of the Gulf Region Advocacy Center and the use of mitigation in death-penalty cases.

"The idea (is) to use the mitigation process to tell the life story of the defendant in a way that explain(s) the conduct that brought him into court. The work (is) closer to biography than criminal investigation, and it (has) led to the creation of a new position in the legal world: mitigation specialist." The article tells about Danalynn Recer’s work with Clive Stafford Smith and discusses the use of mitigation in the death-penalty cases of Scott Thibodeaux and Juan Quintero

I'm not sure how long the link will persist, but right now (5/11) you can find the article at:

New book: Razor Wire Women

"Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists" is just out from SUNY Press, edited by Ashley Lucas and Jodie Michelle Lawston. In her review of the book, Erica R. Meiners, author of Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies, says: “Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucas have created a powerful call to action, a reminder that resistance is not futile. With powerful images, testimony, intersectional theorizing, and examples of educational and visual organizing, Razor Wire Women offers essential readings for organizers and scholars—both inside and outside of women’s prisons and detention centers. This is a central read for courses in women’s and gender studies, justice, and sociology, and for all invested in interrupting our nation’s expanding carceral nation.”

(In the interests of full disclosure, I have a chapter in the book about the journalism created by incarcerated women.)

The book can be found on Amazon at:

The authors have started a web page to promote the book and to encourage the conversations of prisoners, activists, scholars, and artists that began in the book. It is fairly new, but already has some great info and links and can be found at:

Monday, May 9, 2011

Educating Against the PIC

I want to take a moment to draw your attention to an impressive group of activists, scholars, and educators fighting against the injustices of US's carceral system.

The Chicago PIC Teaching Collective ( is working to spread knowledge of the Prison Industrial Complex more widely, and creating very helpful resources for educating folks about the crisis of prisons. Sharing information about how the system and its institutions function is a crucial step in exposing prisons as problems and this Collective's tools for outreach and illumination are a valuable part of that project.

The Chicago PIC Teaching Collective has just debuted a zine-- available for (free) download as a pdf on their website-- called "The PIC Is." Designed and illustrated by Billy Dee, the zine is being underwritten in part by the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. Take a look here:

I encourage you to visit their site, browse their resources, and find a way to use this zine in your prison-related teaching. The work that the Chicago PIC Teaching Collective has undertaken is important and inspiring- please support them in any way you can!